Over the last year, the number of House Republicans voting to pull out of Afghanistan has tripled to 26. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 43 percent of rank-and-file Republicans want to reduce our Afghan footprint, a percentage double November 2009. In the House, more Republicans than Democrats voted for a resolution by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) terminating our military involvement in Libya.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, smelling an “isolationist turn” among House Republicans, labeled these 87 GOP congressmen “the Kucinich Republicans.” The editorialists also worried about executive power: “If Mr. Obama won’t defend his office, then Republicans ought to.”
But why is Libya our war, aside from the president’s decision to undertake “kinetic military action”? Who are these rebels we are fighting for? And why should Republicans in Congress defend the powers of Obama’s office rather than their own?
The debate is reminiscent of the 1990s, when grassroots conservatives increasingly turned against Bill Clinton’s humanitarian interventions while others on the right defended Democrat wars. When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) traveled to the Heritage Foundation to denounce the Kosovo war — she said simply that Clinton was “assuming too many commitments where our interests are vague” and “injecting American troops into political situations that pose no threat to us or our allies” — the New York Post editorial page was not amused.
Under the headline “Kay Bailey Isolationism,” the Post editorialized that Hutchison was conjuring up foreign policy ideas from “the fever swamps of [the GOP’s] Pat Buchanan wing” and the benighted “era of Robert A. Taft.” The criticism of the Democratic president was also similar to today’s: “The problem with Bill Clinton is not that he’s been too quick on the trigger — using what Hutchison calls, preposterously, ‘gunpoint diplomacy’ — but that he usually waits far too long to act and, when he does so, he acts incompetently.”
Likening conservative skeptics of the Clinton-era Balkans adventure to the Arab street, an editor at the Weekly Standard wrote, “When the ‘conservative street’ is wrong, it should be corrected — or ignored.” Bill Kristol later recalled that when his magazine backed Clinton in Bosnia, “a not insignificant chunk of our original subscribers immediately canceled out on us.”
Jeane Kirkpatrick, whose neoconservative affiliations stretched from Commentary magazine to the American Enterprise Institute and who derided “Blame America First” Democrats at the GOP convention that renominated Ronald Reagan, publicly hoped that the end of the Cold War would let America be “a normal country in a normal time.” As late as 2000, George W. Bush was promising a “humble foreign policy.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks short-circuited the conservative debate over foreign policy. There would be no post-Cold War holiday from history. Events in distant lands could clearly threaten lives in America. A “muscular foreign policy” was one again in vogue, unquestioned except by a few malcontents on the right.
Now questions are coming again. Was the Kosovo Liberation Army an American ally? Is Hamid Karzai? The recipients of U.S. aid in Pakistan, where bin Laden hid? What about the Iranian-influenced political parties participating in the free elections in Iraq? Those elections weren’t “free” for the Americans who spent blood and treasure securing them.
Few conservatives want to cut the sinews of our national military muscle: vital weapons systems, replacement of equipment that frequently dates back to the Reagan administration, pay for troops. “Maintaining a strong national defense is the most basic of the federal government’s responsibilities,” says former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. “However, building schools, roads, and hospitals in other countries are not among those basic obligations.”
Especially when there is little money left for schools, roads, and hospitals at home. “If we’re going to cut programs for children who need milk in the morning, if we’re going to cut programs for seniors who need a sandwich at lunch, if we’re going to cut veterans benefits, then, for God’s sake, let’s bring back our troops from Afghanistan,” thundered Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), a Class of 1994 alumnus who represents one of the most conservative and pro-military districts in the nation.
To many on the right, these musings mark Johnson and Jones Kucinich Republicans, unserious about foreign policy and national defense. It remains to be seen whether this debate will endure — or last only as long as the Democrats hold the White House.
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